What about sight words?

Child with Down syndrome readingI am often asked about sight word instruction for children with Down syndrome. This can be a touchy topic in the field because, years ago, most children with Down syndrome who were taught to read at all were taught using functional sight word programs. The thinking was that children with Down syndrome were not intellectually capable of learning the rules of the English language necessary to decode unknown words. “Besides,” people would often say, “kids with Down syndrome are whole-word readers.” I used to bristle at this comment; first, because I hate when people make sweeping generalizations about children (“kids with Down syndrome are happy,” “kids with Down syndrome are affectionate,” etc.) but also because I suspected that it was just another way of saying, “kids with Down syndrome can’t decode.” I spent a lot of time discouraging people from sight word instruction because I was so busy trying to spread the word that children with Down syndrome can learn the rules of language and decode unknown words.

As with many things in life, I have learned that there is a middle ground.  Research has shown that beginning readers need to learn sight words and phonics skills. And as it turns out, children with Down syndrome are often more skilled at learning sight words than typically developing children are. Many appear to have an affinity for sight word reading–even a love of it–from a very early age. This is a good thing, since approximately 50 percent of the text used in schools is made up of only 100 “high frequency” words. Some of these are words that cannot be sounded out–often called “permanently irregular” words, such as the, would, said, and of. The rest are words that can be decoded, but may contain rules that a young child has not yet learned, so they are “temporarily irregular” (such as eat, you, good and saw).

There is no universal sight word list (although  Dolch and Fry are common) so parents may want to check with their district to find out what list they use and/or what reading program they implement. Many commercial early reading programs introduce sight words systematically as part of the scope and sequence of the program. Knowing this information can help parents work together with their child’s teacher to avoid confusion.

And if you are wondering how many sight words a kindergartener needs to know,  Dr. Timothy Shanahan recently addressed that frequently asked question on his blog, Shanahan on Literacy (which is packed with information on every aspect of literacy and well worth a visit).

5 thoughts on “What about sight words?

  1. What a great overview of a very important issue! Thank you especially for distinguishing between those “sight words” that are non-decodable to a student because they are inherently (or “permanently”) irregular phonetically, and those that are just “temporarily” so – as one day hopefully the majority of these “temporarily irregular” words will be decodable to that student. It is important to add that many of the words on commonly used sight word lists, such as the Dolch and Fry lists, are simple short-vowel words, and are therefore considered “decodable” for even the earliest readers.

  2. We should talk! My daughter, Rosie, now age 24, learned to read (and write and spell – well, spell, sort of – just like her high IQ engineer dad!) using Orton-Gillingham. Mrs. Diana Hanbury King was skeptical but after spending time evaluating Rosie, she was sure that Rosie would learn and she did. It took 2+ years of intensive tutoring but she reads quite well now.


    Anyone who needs further information about teaching your child to read using Orton-Gillingham, feel free to write to me. b.joy.lawrence@gmail.com

  3. I shared this website with the self-contained classroom teacher in my building. We found it was an excellent conversation starter for ways to best educate all students. I look forward to topics that I can continue to bring back to my classroom.

  4. My daughter is in kindergarten and has learned her sight words with the class. I will defintly keep what you wrote in mind and keep my ears open if the subject of sight word only reading curriculum pos up. I enjoy yor blog!

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